I have recently watched “Birth of a Nation” (1915), D.W. Griffith’s (in)famous three-hour long opus. I knew a bit of the film’s reputation, both as a landmark in cinema making and aware that it was considered by many as a very racist film. However nothing could have prepared me for its extent.
During the first half, focused on the pre-Civil War South and the war itself, most of what appeared on the screen was not far from what I expected: black faced actors, happy slaves, etc. But the moment the war ends, and the main plot starts, so did my discomfort and later horror. Roughly, the plot follows the honoured and honourable southerners being imposed a government that made them poor victims of the evil black people that came from the North and upset the good blacks from the South, the ones that knew their proper place. Nothing during the first half the film was bad as the horrid stereotypes that now continuously poured from the screen. It was also quite hard to swallow the Ku Klux Klan as a good thing – yes, they are the “heroes” of the film – and the preserve of the honour of the Old South. (Oh, by the way… the sheets are only meant to scare the silly and childish blacks) At least I was slightly comforted by the fact that even in 1915 the film was criticised by some – albeit a fantastic box-office success.
Why I am then talking of this film? Because I think people should be aware of it. It is, sadly, one of the most important landmarks in the history of cinema. Techniques that we are well familiar with were pioneered here or in other Griffith movies. It also opened the door to longer films (films tended to be much shorter, just one or two reels). Cinema would not have been the same without him and without this film. But I wish that the DVD edition I watched had a proper documentary and a good commentary that could contextualised it. Otherwise, it is just another film.
Griffith stopped making films with the advent of sound, in the late twenties. Despite his immense contributions to cinema, this is not something that saddens me. I would like to think that his political views may have had something to do with it.